five favourite big cities

Continuing to recall our favourite places on earth, we now come to a request we often hear: to name our favourite cities. It seems unfair to compare the small cities we love to the big ones, so this post will describe our favourite large cities, we’ll come back to the smaller cities in a future post. Our absolute favourites were easy to agree on, we had to work hard to narrow down the rest of our top five, and here they are!

Number 5: Havana, Cuba

We’ve visited Havana several times over the years. Twice on daytrips from beach resorts, and twice for extended stays, and we have loved every minute we roamed this historic and vibrant city. Around every corner of old Havana is an old school arts venue or museum, a crumbling apartment building or government office complex, Che billboards, and an endless parade of big old American cars from the 1950s. The city is not without challenges around poverty and other inequities, although during our last visit it was clear a middle class was emerging. One reason is Cubans are allowed to operate small businesses including casa particulares – bed and breakfast for tourists. We stayed in several across the country, but our room in old Havana was the best. We’ll go back! 

Number 4: Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne might not be the most famous city in Australia, but it is our favourite. It is very walkable, has a beach along one side, a concentrated downtown core, a vibrant arts scene, lots of buses, and numerous neighbourhoods featuring independent shops and craft brewpubs. Maybe it simply reminds us of Vancouver, and the comparisons don’t end there. While the scenic escape from Vancouver is the Sea-to-Sky Highway, Melbourne is the perfect jumping off point for the Great Ocean Road. Two outstanding art galleries not to miss, both free and operated by the National Government of Victoria: the International Gallery, the country’s largest and most visited gallery, and the nearby Ian Potter Centre with a focus on Australian artists, especially Aborigine art.

Number 3: Barcelona, Spain

We really enjoyed our stay in Barcelona. The gothic quarter is dark and haunting, the tourist strips are busy and noisy, and the cultural vibe is lively and defiant. Many tourists are fascinated by the numerous buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi, including the massive, still-under-construction sagrada familia church. But we appreciated seeing the rest of the city. A big chunk of the city was laid out according to progressive urban design ideas back in the mid-1800s. Each block features apartment building all the same height, with shops and cafes on the angled corners and common space inside. By the way, happy hour is done right throughout Spain, including in Barcelona – a small plate of complimentary food accompanies every pint of beer or glass of wine! 

Number 2: Rome, Italy

Rome is the ultimate city of antiquities. You can’t walk long before encountering everything from the ruins of ancient walls and “minor” temples to the magnificent and iconic Coliseum and nearby hilltop Palatino complex, the terme di caracalla (Roman baths), and of course the Vatican. After all, this was the centre of power for the Roman Empire, an ancient empire that reached far and wide. We have encountered evidence of Roman rule throughout Europe, and as far away as northern England. It was well worth it to purchase 72-hour Roma Passes: a helpful map and guide booklet, free access to the first two archaeological sites we visited and a discount on additional sites. The pass also gave us free use of city buses and trams – we were able to see a lot over 72 hours!

Number 1: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Latin America has a lot of offer, but one city is in a class of its own, Buenos Aires. It’s been said that it is the most European city outside Europe, but there is more to it than that. It has a long and sometimes difficult history – curbside markers commemorate the names of those taken away by secret police through the 1980s, and former sites of torture have been opened as museums. The city continues to be a centre for resistance – and this shows up in street protests, strikes and school occupations. But it feels very livable as well. Out for a walk in the morning, what you thought was an apartment entryway opens and a vender offers up a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Later, Tango dancers put on shows for the afternoon outdoor happy-hour café crowd. Our biggest challenge was finding a place for dinner – many restaurants didn’t open until 9 pm or later, that was hard to get used to! 

good morning habana

We have arrived safely in Havana… lovely weather… between 19 at night to around 28 or 30 in the day. As we are here in the city for 8 nights, we are taking it slow. Our accommodation is in a wonderful casa particular, Casa de Ana Morales. The room is huge, with a bedroom suite from the 50’s in perfect shape. Ana makes us breakfast every day… healthy fruit, freshly made juices and any type of egg we desire (I need to take her home with me). Her husband, Alberto, is a godsend… he speaks perfect English and is a superb source of information about Havana and Cuba as a whole.

Kitty corner from our building is the old Ritz hotel. It is now an apartment building for hundreds of people.

This is our third visit to Cuba and though we had stayed at resorts before, we always took a trip into Havana. It has changed in many ways. Yes, there is the historic district that still has its charm, including La Floridita, apparently the birthplace of the daiquiri… Hemmingway’s drink of choice. They have a bronze statue of him sitting sideways to the bar, just like he was talking to someone. Touristas love to have their picture taken with him. The drinks at La Floridita are the most expensive in Havana… tourists willingly pay for the privilege of drinking a daiquiri with the spirit of Hemmingway.

The roadways around Havana are in very good shape, better I would suggest, than in San Jose, Costa Rica. As we walk around the city, we were watching for huge people movers, they were called Camels… we saw them back in 2000. They were huge cattle-trailers pulled by semi-truck cabs; it looked like they could hold upwards of 300 to 400 people. We couldn’t find any… fortunately, they have been replaced by modern buses… rumour has it… supplied by China.

We took a hop-on hop-off bus for $5 each the other day, to see what other parts of Havana looked like. The bus headed west along the Malecon, an eight kilometre sea wall, and turned into an area of homes and apartments as well as large hotels. Everywhere the streets were lined with trees, some very old… and unlike most cities we have visited, they have street markings on each corner. These are rather unique as they little concrete pyramids, about 18 inches square and about as high, with the calles and avenidas marked accordingly.

We visited the old presidential palace, which is now the Museum of the Revolution. It is quite the space, with much text and a lot of pictures and maps showing the progress of the revolution. There are also lots of bullet holes in the walls from a failed attempt to assassinate the Batista… so you can get the drama of the days gone by. I wasn’t feeling great that day, so wandered a bit, sat down when I could, but I did learn a few things. In my mind there were only two people leading the revolution, Che and Fidel. I learned that Raul Castro as well as Camilo Cienfuegos and others were key members of the leadership at the time; Camilo, unfortunately, reportedly died in a plane only a few months later (in photos, he is the one with the cowboy hat).

We have seen lots of things since we have been here and of course, can’t mention them all. One of the challenges in Cuba, at least for the time being, is that internet is not widely available. We are posting this blog via the internet café in the Parque Central Hotel.

Here’s to a great sense of community for everyone.
Much happiness to you all!
Deborah